The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, editors Gregg Morgan, Chris Dale.

The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, editors Gregg Morgan, Chris Dale.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000h3nt/the-countess-and-the-russian-billionaire

A poignant voice towards the end of this docu-drama told viewers Sergei Pugachev was likely to be down to his last £70 million (or it might have been dollars $70 million). That was to put things into perspective. I’m not sure if we were meant to feel sorry for him. My Russian stretches to nada.   Pugachev had once been worth around $15 billion. He was a Russian oligarch and friend of Vladimir Putin. His portfolio included one of Russia’s largest private banks, shipyards, a coal mine and designer brands. He’d been married but divorced when he employed Countess Alexandra Tolstoy to teach him English.

Tolstoy was still married to Chama Uzikstn, whom she’d met while yomping across Russia on horseback. They were stars of a Russian television series ‘It’ll Never Last’, which proved prophetic. Here we had the English ideal of female beauty celebrated with pale, flawless complexion and rosy cheeks and some dark skinned horseman.

President Putin, Pugachev tells us, wasn’t keen on the Russian oligarch marrying an English rose. Putin told him much the same as he (allegedly) told President Trump that Russia had the most beautiful woman and prostitutes, who could piss on anybody’s bed (perhaps not in that order) even his.  

Pugachev tells us he defied Putin and married Countess Alexandra Tolstoy and they had three children together with houses all over the world. It’s a happy-ever-after scenario. The education of the children taking place in their home in Kensington, London. Here we have the English-language version of ‘It’ll Never Last’.  

Let’s not fall for he married the wrong woman argument. Bill Browder in his book, Red Notice, tell us how he became ‘Putin’s No.1 Enemy’. Pugachev puts himself around Putin’s No. 3 Enemy. He admits he fears with his life. With almost 40 Russian oligarchs dying and the use of  Novichok nerve agent on British soil, and the then British Prime Minster, Teresa May, condemned Russian involvement and naming two Russian agents who had perpetrated the crime, he had good reason.

Post-Soviet Russia after the fall of the Berlin wall was cowboy country in which the Chicago School model attempted to  transform Communism into Capitalism in one big gulp. Browder estimates that around twenty men ‘stole’ around 39% of the economy.  Pugachev was one of these twenty men which took him into the top 1000 richest men in the world (of around 8 billion). 

Putin, the little grey man, was pushed forward by oligarchs and regional gangsters and in January 2000, became President of the Russian Federation.  Pugachev was still part of the inner circle, still friendly with Putin as others grabbed the money and fled abroad. England, and London, offered citizenship at a fixed price of around £2 million, access to the money-laundering capital of the world and access to Conservative politicians. Pugachev remained in Moscow.

Pugachev’s narrative that he married an English rose and defied his old friend Putin, doesn’t hold. His claim that Putin’s agents took over his bank and demanded $240 million, accused him of $100 million tax fraud and threatened to kill him, his wife and children unless he paid up immediately does. Browder reports the same tactics and his Russian manager was imprisoned and beaten to death in a jail cell. The Russian state used English law to call for his deportation back to Russia (similar to the tactic they had used with Browder). Here  Pugachev made a tactical error, his passport was impounded but he fled London to his chateau in France. In absentia, he was jailed for two years for breaking English law.

Here we’re on the English version of it’ll never last. Countess Tolstoy’s parents were related to THE Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace, (perhaps also to the émigré writer and nobleman Alexi Tolstoy favoured by Stalin) and fully supportive of their daughter marrying a Russian billionaire. When things went badly, they remained supportive. Here’s the narrative of the plucky daughter, who although Pugachev was trying to bully her in the same way Putin was trying to bully him into returning home, she would not bend. The lady’s not for turning narrative.

Pugachev had tried to take her passport and imprison her and the children in his chateau in France. Countess Tolstoy said he’d a gun. He was no longer a billionaire, just another millionaire that tried to control his wife and kids and hit her when things went badly. Billionaire wife beater. That sounds about right, although not factually correct.

Countess Tolstoy was paid to appear on Russian telly, the equivalent of Fox News in America, Putin’s channel and confronted with Pugachev’s claim, she wasn’t even a proper Countess.

Fake news turns up everywhere. The wife beating Pugachev remains abroad. Tolstoy returned to Russia in an attempt to make a living. I guess with Covid-19 she’ll be home now. Home being, Kensington, London. Down and out in London and Moscow. George Orwell, eat your heart out.

James S. Hirsch (2000) Hurricane, The Life of Rubin Carter, Fighter.


I guess those of us that have been kept under house arrest for a week or more, might have a little more sympathy for Ruben Carter, fitted up, for a triple murder and served nineteen years. His co-defendant, John Artis served more than fifteen years. He too refused to bend, plead guilty or finger Carter as a murderer, even though it would have got him out of prison earlier. The focus of the prosecutors of Paterson, New Jersey was so much on Carter that they dropped the ball and didn’t include Artis’s name on an appeal to U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Rubin Carter was guilty of drinking, womanising and being quick with his fists. He’d once knocked out a horse with a punch (like the fictional character Mongo did in Blazing Saddles). But Carter was an ex-marine and professional boxer, a face in Paterson and beyond its pubs and clubs having fought for the middle-weight World Boxing Championship and lost—on a count many thought was unfair. He’d a criminal record and guns, lots of guns, but as Bertha, Ruben’s mother, in her nineties when he was finally released said in June 1998, ‘If you’d told me he walked into a bar and beat them to death, I’d said he did it.’

His sister said of the triple murder of three white men in June 1966, ‘But he was never raised to go anywhere to shoot them down like dogs. We were not raised like that.’

Ruben Carter and John Artis were taken in for questioning on the night of the shootings, but released. Both submitted to polygraph tests which they passed. The black suspects were said to be around the same height and build. Amis was a head bigger than Carter and one of those shot said, at the time, it wasn’t them. No motive was established for the shooting. In its place was placed the notion that it was a hate crime. Carter and Artis had indiscriminately killed and injured drinkers in the tavern because of an earlier shooting of a black man. Carter figured they were tied in with November elections, being tough on black crime. In October 1966 mystery witnesses were unearthed, from police custody on other cases they had been investigating. Witnesses willing to cop a plea and go free, if they did what they were told.  

Twelve white jurors found two black men guilty of triple murder. Fake news. Fake evidence. Falsified accounts. Fake forensics. Witness statements placed them at the scene of the crime. A white judge gave Carter three life sentences to run concurrently. Carter wondered why they didn’t just give him the electric chair, burn him. Artis was sentence to two life sentences. Carter was the perceived threat, Artis collateral damage.

Carter was familiar with Trenton State Prison. Carter refused to bow and be part of the prison system. Refused to wear mandatory prison uniform or work in the prison system. He was fighting the system. ‘The state always wins’.

Institutionalisation Carter found was not about bars on the outside, but bars on the inside. Blinkers placed on the mind. He educated himself and fought for a re-trial. He fought for justice.

Here’s where Carter becomes a cause celebre, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier before fighting the Thriller in Manila in 1975, both came out in Carter’s corner, saying he a great man, unjustly imprisoned. Bob Dylan visited him in prison. At this time it was an open prison, rather cushy for Dylan’s liking so they had to fabricate some bars, and push them between them for a photo opportunity. A protest song ‘Hurricane’ headlined Dylan’s tour.

  Here we have the triumphant ending. The stories of adversities overcome. Carter and Amis are allowed out of jail, pending a re-trial.

In fiction, roundabout this point, someone in the camp turns against you. In this case it was a woman supporter of Carter, a black woman that said Carter beat her up and tried to kill her. Now is the time for his celebrity support to fall away. They get sent back to prison to complete their sentence.

A common story, Carter and Amis forgotten as the world moves on. As a work of fiction you’d be accused of exaggeration if somehow Carter responds to a letter from a young black kid, and somehow that hooks him into a Canadian commune, who work tirelessly for his release and pay over $400 000 in legal fees. It does seem a bit too far-fetched, but truth comes in many forms.

Lies about the threat of the black man remain monotone. The United States jails more of its citizens than all other nations combined.  Recidivism rates nowadays are almost 50%. They let you out, but then they bring you back again – especially if you’re a black man. Britain closely follows this failing and financially crippling model of moral ineptitude.

Hurricane Carter does get out, despite the state prosecutors using every dirty trick in the book to keep him inside. But with the money and support of the Canadian commune members who hid him and acted as a bulwark against doing anything stupid—like hitting an officer of the law—and confirming he was a danger to society. This is not a story of triumph. This not a story of adversity overcome. This is an everyday story of how things work. As Carter said, if it could happen to Artis, it could happen to anyone. It does. It does. It still does. And with the moron’s moron in the White House things have become worse than the mid-sixties when the Hurricane was taken into custody for having the wrong face and skin colour. Things change but remain the same—if you’re black or poor, or both. Prison is your natural home. Expect no mercy. Justice is only for some.  

Michael Thomas (2007, 2009) Man Gone Down

Miscegenation n 19th century from Latin miscere ‘to mix’ + genus ‘race’ + ation

Man Gone Down is a terrific book. Whether the subject is race, or class, and the gentrification of New York, the opposite of white flight, and the squeezing out of the poor and disenfranchised, well, that’s not a book, but a documentary. Here we have a black writer, unwilling to compromise. We have the ticking clock, the unknown narrator (whose name is Ishmael) needs to find $8400 for  three months tuition fees and a place for them to live in New York where rents have went crazy money. Ishmael steals quarters from his friend Marco to stay afloat. He’s been living there for three weeks and he’s promised Claire his wife—his white wife—on the twelfth anniversary of their marriage that he’ll sort it before his thirty-fifth anniversary in four days, while knowing he won’t and can’t.  Like Holden Caulfield he knows that everyone is a phony, including him. He’s ripped up his future, PhD on Eliot, Modernism and Metaphysics,  symbolically he moves away from the chance of tenure and gambles on success at writing.

But quotes from T.S. Eliot,  Little Gidding, preface each section of the book, beginning, middle and end. The Loser, ‘If you come at night like a broken king’.

Ishmael looks backwards to broken life as a kid in Boston, where he was raped, yet dragged himself up, but became an alcoholic like his own mother, perhaps mirror his own father, who screwed around and left them penniless—the section where Ishmael buys twelve bottles of Budweiser, breaks one open and sniffs it, had me saying, just fuck off, that’s no alcoholic I know—but he also looks to his kids’ future based on what he knows.   

‘I sometimes see the arcs of each boy’s life based solely on the reaction from strangers, friends and family—the reaction to their colours.

‘X could pass’ [for white]

X is Ishmael’s precocious three-year old son.

‘C could not.’

His girl is too young to tell if her skin colour will give the game away. Set her life up for a fall. Even Claire his ever optimistic wife knows they wouldn’t have a chance of snatching the American dream in Boston of ‘the boundless white’.  New York after 9/11 is not a melting pot, but it’s the only game in town.

Pincus, a father figure and mentor to the narrator, had walked beside Martin Luther King and knew Bobby Kennedy, tells it like it is, in a way that resonates more today than yesteryear.  

When I signed on to do what I was going to do, it was during the dark time. There existed in this country’s dominant class a horrifying mix of paranoia, cynicism, ignorance, amnesia, sadism, and base desire, and it was wrapped in a synthetic cloak of privilege and entitlement.

It’s difficult to tell if he’s talking about now or then. Such sentiments since the rise of Trumpism, the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, seem more now than ever.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the end of the book, but it is a beautiful book, so I’ll hold my breath. Section IV. Everbody Is a Star, T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages:

‘And right action is freedom

From past and future also.

For most of us, this is the aim

Never here to be realized;

Who are only undefeated

Because we have gone on trying…’

Wolf Hall, BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, based on the Hilary Mantel novel, adapted for screen by Peter Straughan, director Peter Kosminsky

Watch Wolf Hall | Prime Video

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gfy74/wolf-hall-1-three-card-trick

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05172x8/wolf-hall-2-entirely-beloved

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0520v9d/wolf-hall-3-anna-regina

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b052sfnf/wolf-hall-4-the-devils-spit

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b053j5n1/wolf-hall-5-crows

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0547rvc/wolf-hall-6-masters-of-phantoms;’

I didn’t watch the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall first time around because I’d started the (first) novel—all 650 pages—of it and didn’t get beyond the first 20 pages. It begins in Putney, 1500, with young Thomas Cromwell getting the living daylights kicked out of him by his father. He flees to his sister Kat’s, to be consoled and then flees further, abroad. Most writing is judged in the first few pages. This wasn’t the book for me.

Yet, I started watching the screen adaptation by Peter Straughan and I was hooked. The incident that begins the book is presented as a flashback. Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a grown man with a wife and three daughters. His patron, Cardinal Wolsley (Jonathan Pryce), is in trouble.  King Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) wants to divorce Katherine of Aragon (Joanne Whalley), his brother’s widow, because she cannot produce for him the male heir he needs to cement his dynasty. King Henry VIII claims she was not a virgin on their wedding night.  

We all know about Henry VIII and his six wives. Katherine of Aragon introduced the Spanish farthingdale, the cone shaped structure worn under a dress, to the Royal Court. Henry VIII was a spendthrift and fashion trendsetter. The warrior Queen Katherine shows her loyalty to her Spanish forbearers by wearing a Spanish headdress. Henry VIII’s Sumptuary laws, 1510, against the ‘wearing of costly apparel’ in men’s fashions, by which the King decides who should wear what clothes, means at a glance he can tell what’s what and who’s who. Cromwell, the black crow, is obviously nothing.  The King has the richest plume of colours. His wardrobe lists 134 doublets made from 29 different fabrics. They are the Posh and Becks of their time.

Wolf Hall does not however show the aristocratic men wearing codpieces. They were part of men’s upper hose, reach elaborate decorative heights in the early years of Henry’s reign, a habit carried over for Henry VII. Henry VIII’s codpieces would have been gilded with gold. No doubt priapic and measuring more than eight inches. A man needed room to store his jewels. Not just a piece of cloth. A symbol of male virility.

1521, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) enters the service of Katherine of Aragon. Fireworks. Henry VIII with his wandering eye. Katherine of Aragon has produced a male heir, but he lasted seven days. She’s produced miscarriage after miscarriage and one female princess, Mary (later Mary I). Henry acknowledges a bastard child, a male child, by another courtier as his own. Henry tells Katherine his doubts about the validity of their marriage. He tells Cromwell to fix it.

Cromwell’s mentor and former master Cardinal Wolsey has been exiled north. Wolsley’s inability to fix it with the Pope has moved him out of royal favour and royal circles. Cromwell is the king’s ‘right hand’. His lowly birth and his connections with the lower classes he plays to his advantage, setting up a spy network that trades in rumours and truth. To please the King, a group of noblemen murder Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell watches from the side-lines as they play it out in a grotesque masque for his King.   He does not swear revenge, he waits and gathers evidence.

We know, of course, 1536 Anne Boleyn will be beheaded. ‘Such a little neck,’ she’ll proclaim. Here we have it. Having not read Wolf Hall, is no disadvantage. Cromwell (fictional Cromwell, not Cromwell, the Archbishop of Canterbury) was born in 1500 then by Ann Boelyn’s death, Cromwell, in his forties, and at the peak of his power. Eleven days later Henry VIII marries another courtier, Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). We do not see this. Nor the Act of Supremacy making Henry VIII the Head of the Church of England, breaking with the Catholic Church in Rome. Drama is personal. 1532, Katherine of Aragon is made to give back the Queen of England’s jewels. Anne Boleyn has the crown. Love and hate, played against the backdrop of Boleyn’s marriage, not her death. She produces a girl, a future Queen, Elizabeth I, that’s for later history, becoming herstory. Not enough, for now.

Breaking up churches and monasteries enriches Henry VIII, but it also makes Cromwell more powerful. ‘Power corrupts,’ argues historian Robert A.Caro, ‘but it also reveals’. Drama also reveals the fault lines in the royal court, the scrambling for power and influence.  Cromwell, the power behind the throne. A wonderful drama. I’m almost tempted to give Wolf Hall, Mantel’s novel, another try.  

A.J.Cronin (1937) The Citadel.

I read this years ago. Probably, the beginning of the 1970s. Mrs Bell our next door neighbour was on her throne. She kept a firm grip on her son, Pete(r). TV Times, Reader’s Digest, Sunday Post and borrowed our Sunday Mail. All was right in her world. She admitted she skipped the boring bits in books. Descriptive stuff. A.J.Cronin was one of her favourites. No boring stuff and everything was black and white. There were good guy and bad guys. Just when the bad guys looked like winning—you know what happened next, Mrs Bell lit another cigarette.

Let’s talk about the hero, Dr Manson.

Late one October afternoon in the year 1924, a shabby young man gazed with fixed intensity through the window of a third class compartment in the almost empty train labouring up the Penowell Valley from Swansea. All that day Manson had travelled from the North, changing at Carlisle and Shrewsbury, yet the final stage of his tedious journey to South Wales found him strung  to a still greater excitement by the prospect of his post, the first of his medical career, in this strange, disfigured, county.  

I was also in a disfigured country and stood in for another of A.J.Cronin’s heroes, Dr Findlay—not of Facebook—but Casebook fame. One of the wardrobe staff, a gay man, was quite taken with me. Unshaven and hungover I was put into a tweed coat and got to play the back of Dr Findlay’s head. I wasn’t that interested in the fame, but £75 for less than two hours work as an extra appealed enormously.

But here we begin with Dr Manson, in his coming-of-age and romantic drama. The reader knows he’s poor, because he’s travelling third class. Perhaps rather than saying he was shabby, Cronin should have described his off-the-peg suit, only people with money could afford bespoke suits. His journey is described as tedious, yet Dr Manson is described as brimming with excitement. Mrs Bell would have approved, description is done by numbers.

Characters have flaws, it’s in their surnames. Mr Boon is obviously a bad guy. Listen to the names. Doctor Thoroughgood, well, we know what to think of him. Nurse Sharp, whom Dr Manson, hires in a later incarnation. You know what she’ll be like and it won’t be pretty.

Mr Stillman, sounds like a good guy, still-man. Hope, with his lab work, is a great friend. What about Robert Abbey? I’ll let you decide, but let’s just say the prestigious doctor has very understanding eyes. At one point the distinguished gentleman flipped back to his own humble background, all the better to understand Dr Manson. Granny, what big eyes you’ve got.

Con? Well, usually, that would be a negative. But he’s Mr Funny man, a dentist who lives in a ramshackle house and fixes cars. Poor, but happy. So joyful his daughter, Mary’s lung disease is just another way of giving Dr Manson a chance at redemption. Mary might be the mother of God, but here there’s a shadow on her lung.

There was a shadow on Mrs Bell’s lungs. All that smoking. Dr Manson also smokes. Everybody did in those days, well apart from Christine. Dr Manson marries her. She’s a school teacher and Manson behaves abominably badly. He admits it, and they laugh and make up.  

Later, whisper it, he had an affair. He returned to Christine like a dog with his tale between his legs. Yep. Lots of clichés. No sex. It was left to the reader to work out whether Dr Manson went beyond the kissing stage. I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but Christine should have paid less attention to being poor, but happy, keeping her house sparkling clean—dirt being the enemy of a good, virtuous woman—and more attention to buses.

Dr Manson in Aberlaw, with all the modern facilities, knew how to deal with patients who ‘swung the lead’.

‘Certificate,’ he said, without minding his manners.

‘What for?’ Andrew asked.

‘Stagmus.’

The tone alone caused Andrew to look at Chenkins with quick resentment.

Beer on his breath. Piggy eyes. Ben Chenkin Not to be trusted. Not like his alcoholic friend Denny. He’s a surgeon. Down on his luck. Who wouldn’t be after his wife—whom he was madly in love with—left him for another man. Of course Denny drunk. Any man would in those circumstances. Crawling blind underground and breathing in dust that ages a man to provide the fuel that drove the industrial revolution—salt of the earth type need only apply and be prepared to die, shouldn’t swing any lead.

Christine counts the pennies. They’re poor but happy. Then rich and unhappy. Medicine is set up to favour the rich and connected. As it is now, but it is more of a meritocracy. Manson’s constant claim that he’d be reduced to nought and poverty, is matched by, for example, Adam Kay, of This Is Going to Hurt fame. Both claimed there’s no money in it, medicine. They did it for love.  Yet the monthly salary of a doctor would be the six monthly salary of a 1920s miner and a yearly salary of the poorest worker.  

Miners used penny whistles to shame black legs and Ben Chenkin, when Manson decides to leave Aberlaw for London. Whenever there’s a point of principle in the room, Manson is sure to trip over it. He never just leaves, he always leaves with his head high—over a point of principle.

When, for example, Manson leaves London to set up a mini-NHS based on democratic principles with his good friend and ally Denny, of the non-piggy eyes and his other good friend Hope, well, you know a point of principle is going to turn up.

I do it myself when writing, I always fling the main character (or his wife) under the bus. But there’s a hole in his storyline which makes it unbelievable. Miners might be portrayed as the salt of the earth types (apart from piggy-eyes, signing on while he didn’t work, Ben Chankins) but a rudimentary approach to any kind of history would pinpoint the 1926 General Strike epicentre was in the coal fields. Welsh coal fields.  History of any kind seemed to have bypassed Dr Manson, perhaps he was studying too hard, trying to get on. The 1929 Stock Market Crash? The Hungry Thirties? The Great Depression. Mass unemployment. Lockouts at the pits. Nowt taken out. Or put in. A bit like the affair, of the non-affair.

Dr Manson nobly battles against the Citadel of the Medical profession, charlatans, bureaucracy and vested interests. Manson prefigures the need for a National Health Service. Mrs Bell would have approved. Why bother with all the boring details when you can have a good story?   

Heather Christle (2020) The Crying Book.

The Crying Book doesn’t really have a beginning or end. Heather Christle explains: ‘This book began five years ago with an idle idea about what it might look like to make a map of every place I’d ever cried…’ So it’s an ongoing conversation, like making a rug of your experiences, tagging it onto another strip. Crying with friends. Crying alone. Crying for god’s sake.

I suppose some people can weep softly and become more beautiful, but after a real cry, most people are hideous, as if they’ve grown a spare and diseased face beneath the one you’ve known, leaving very little room for the eyes. Or they look as if they’ve been beaten. We look. I look

After a trip to the emergency room and CT scan, a doctor announces it was not a stroke, only an ocular migraine. I remember different occasions, years ago, when my vision suddenly went askew, and I was for a short time unable to read words. I’d hold a book in front of me and see the black symbols, but could not decipher them. They looked to me just as they’d done before I learned how to read: orderly, attractive, incomprehensible. On that day I wept.

Men cry differently from women, it’s a cultural thing, but also the way we read ourselves. This is a book worth dipping in and out of. A refresher course in common humanity. Read on.

What happens after the Covid-19?


What happens after the Covid-19?

20 Jan 2020 – USA has first confirmed imported case – From China.

20 Jan 2020 – COVID-19 included in Statutory Report of Class B Infectious Diseases and Border Health Quarantine Infectious Diseases in China – Measures to Curtail: Temperature Checks, Health Care Declarations, Quarantines – Instituted at Transportation Depots – Laws of China – Wildlife Markets Closed – Captive-Breeding Facilities Cordoned Off.

22/23 Jan 2020 – WHO decides not to yet declare the outbreak a PHEIC.

23 Jan 2020 – China observes Strict Travel Restrictions.

24 Jan 2020 – First Report of case in Europe – France.

30 Jan 2020 – WHO declares 2019 nCov (former name of COVID-19) outbreak a PHEIC – under International Health Regulations (2005).

11 Feb 2020 – The Virus and the Disease it causes officially named – The Novel Coronavirus named ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’; The Disease it Causes named ‘COVID-19’.

27 Feb 2020 – WHO updates case definitions for COVID-19 for Suspected, Probable, Confirmed – Worldwide Surveillance Continues.

28 Feb 2020 – Nigeria reports first case of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

11 March 2020 – WHO upgrades the COVID-19 outbreak to a Pandemic.

A mother in a Lorrie Moore short story People Like That Are the Only People Here, jokes, ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich’.  We know what happens next.

Writers are readers. If they’re no readers they’re not writers. Here’s the story: We’re all in it together. In Burlington Care Home in Glasgow, thirteen elderly residents died in a week. Two of the staff test positive for Covid-19. All over the world Covid-19 has been behaving in the classic hockey-stick manner of epidemics plotted on a graph. We sit on the side-lines and clap our team, the NHS, care staff, all those on the front line. There’s good reason for this. Wearing gloves and a face mask doesn’t mean you won’t get sick – viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks, but it does make it five times more unlikely.

With no football on, we’ve all become expert analysists, pitting our team against other countries. We know from the SARs  2003-4 in South Korea, most of the cases were in health workers. The pattern is repeated with Covid-19. Those who spend more time treating victims are more likely to become victims, especially if they don’t have proper protective equipment.

Other armchair experts claim it’s no big deal, no worse than seasonal flu. Herd immunity sounded feasible. This was the positon the moron’s moron President Trump took. Now he’s saying 200 000 American deaths would be a good score. The side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson took the same position as his senior partner in the Oval Office. Johnson is now settling for 20 000 British deaths after the first wave of the Covid-19 has passed.

Do the math. If borne out by further testing, this could mean that current estimates of a roughly 1% fatality rate are accurate. This would make Covid-19 about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide. The population of America is around 250 million so if Covid-19 hockeystick trajectory continued as epidemiologist modelled with over 80%  of the population becoming infected over 2 million Americans would die. In Britain that would be around 600 000 deaths.

As we’ve seen, even with these lower numbers our health services are working beyond full capacity with apparently mild cases overlooked and hockey-stick numbers growing exponentially. This is important because as Chinese scientist have confirmed these cases DO contribute to transmission and need to be socially isolated. Health Care workers such as those in Burlington Care Home did go into work.  Tens of thousands of Care workers face that same dilemma.

Employers, until now, have created even more ways of punishing and sacking low-paid workers and depriving them of their rights. Care staff as disposable as bed-pans. Classed as self-employed. No holiday pay. No pension. Zero-hour contracts.  Minimum wage is the maximum wage and ways such as not paying for travelling costs being used to deprive them of even that. Classified as agency staff and their minimum wage reduced by a third by paying their employers for employing them. Take it or leave it.  

The future looks like the past. Imagine the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla residents of Burlington Care Home. We’re all in it together. Under new NHS guidelines in England (this is Scotland you might argue) rationing or triage needs to take place. The Queen because of her age would not qualify for Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or qualify for a ventilator. Charles might get into ICU but because of a shortage of ventilators doesn’t receive incubation. Camilla qualifies for both. Are we really all in it together?

Let’s look at the league tables and cheer. Singapore is top of the table. China has flat- lined, it no longer has hockey-stick growth in numbers. Italy is doing most testing, but has the highest fatality rate. Spain is catching up with Italy in terms of casualties and testing. Germanic efficiency, doing everything by the book. It  has been doing widespread testing of suspects with symptoms and contact tracing in the WHO-recommended fashion from the beginning of the epidemic. We’re at different stages of the epidemic. The UK death toll is currently higher than Italy’s at the same stage, reinforced by another showing that by this stage of the outbreak. Italy had begun to flatten its curve while in Britain the line keeps rising, the number of deaths doubling every three days. We’re not even looking at Third World Countries. Trump boasts he’s testing more than Britain, more than China. Those without healthcare or the capacity to treat victims know what to expect. We’ve all seen it before. More of the same.

When it ends, when it really ends, we’ll be back at the beginning, waiting for the second wave of the Covid-19. The golden bullet of vaccines, optimistically, look about a year away. Only about five major drug companies have the resources to manufacture the golden bullet if it was found today. Scaling takes time. First world countries would be first. Even the moron’s moron in the US  has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export, America must come first. Trump tried to buy a German company bio-tech company. Third world countries third, because you can’t go any lower. But here you create a reservoir population, ready to infect the rest of the world. Using an economic axiom, ceteris paribus: Changing the number of people tested, or who is being offered tests, will also affect the number of reported cases.

Moving forward to when, or if, we flatten the hockey-shaped curve, people need to return to work in stages. In Britain one effect of government rhetoric is the NHS is safe, even under the Tories that have been selling it off piecemeal, and depriving it of funds. Any hint of depriving the NHS of much-needed resources would be political suicide, but this is short-term.

Cast your mind back to 2010 to the unfunny Laurel and Hardy of Cameron/Osborne government, before their slapstick act of economic stupidity and self-mutilation called Brexit. Note the four doctors to have died so far are BAME doctors.  Britain had to pay higher than other EEC countries for ventilators, for example, because they’re no longer part of the EEC and the pound is plummeting. Fifty percent of our food comes from imports. Crops will rot in the fields without immigrant workers. We import more than we export. Quite literally, we can’t go it alone. Our government knows this.  But the then outgoing Labour Chief Secretary of the Treasury Liam Byrne left a jokey written message to his incoming colleague, the Liberal Democrat (remember them) David Laws: ‘there’s no money left’.  

We all know what happened next. A detailed assessment showed that public spending was to increase in five Whitehall departments and to be cut in seventeen, beginning with welfare. What we used to call social security was gone. As over 1 000 000 people newly registered for Universal Credit have found out. Living on less than £100 per week is the new norm. While the British economy was flatlining in 2010, in the way we hope the Covid-19 will in 2020 the Tory government pursued a policy of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Tax cut. Tax cut. Tax cut. Privatise and cherry pick our NHS, stealth by the back door such as Virgin Health running mental health services. Yes, the same Richard Branson asking for a bailout for his airline. Private profit and dividend and tax cuts, whilst domiciled elsewhere. How does that add up with we’re all in it together?  Those were also the words used by George Osborne and leave a familiar taste in the mouth.

Austerity was imposed on the poor in 2010, but not on the rich. They bounced back very quickly to 2007-2008 levels of capital wealth and an increased share of the GDP. The gap between rich and poor matched that of the Great Depression. Wages never recovered. Those in work and claiming benefits grew and grew. The working poor, those that work in, for example, care homes as carers were mocked as the scum of the earth. Junior doctors were labelled greedy. Nurses were chastised for demanding a pay rise. Loans instead of grants were the new norms for nurses training and numbers dropped.  

Austerity in the twenty-first century. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, but one is now, the other deferred. In the same way, the $2tn US coronavirus relief package is doling out $60bn to struggling airlines and offering low-interest loans that are available to fossil fuel. Britain has in the words of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak effectively nationalised the economy. 10% of Britain’s GDP of debt and growing, £435 billion in Quantitive Easing (printing money) £200 billion up front to keep the economy temporarily afloat.

Writing in the Guardian, the economist David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee during the 2008 financial crisis, said unemployment was rising at the fastest rate in living memory. UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21% of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32% of the workforce.

“There has never been such a concentrated business collapse. The government has tried to respond but it has no idea of the scale of the problem it is going to have to deal with. We make some back-of-the-envelope calculations and they are scary,” he said.

 Unemployment looked to be at least 10 times faster than in the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.

The Great Depression of the hungry thirties was ended not by fiscal stimulus, although that helped, but by the second world war. During the Depression years rich monopolists chaffed at government intervention in the economy and called for a return to lassez-faire economics. Sounds familiar. Listen to Thatcher’s ‘let poppies grow tall speech’. Reaganomics was just Thatcherism wrapped in a different flag.  We’ve seen the same effect under Osborne/ Cameron. At some point in the aftermath of the pandemic hard choices will need to be made. Simple choices if you’re a Tory, you take money from the poor and give it to the rich. After all under Thatcher dogma, ostensibly, they are the creators of wealth. The keepers of our economic good health, but just don’t ask them to share. Trillions can be wiped from stock market shares, ten, twenty, fifty, seventy percent, yet a tax increase of 1% is met as if Armageddon has occurred. Then it did begin to unfold.

Ironically, the moron’s moron may well win an election not for anything he did or said, but because he’s a leader on TV screens and his popularity remains high especially among white, male, Republican supporters.  Those most likely to die from the Covid-19 virus. Here Johnson is in social isolation. He has the virus. He is a viral infection. But he’s never been more popular. As an old Etonian when it comes to making hard choices of who gets what and why, well, that is easy, Thatcherism. Survival of the fittest. Tall poppies, like Branson. Survival of the richest. Poor people are there to be applauded, every Thursday, but not helped. There to be used and discarded. The backlash is coming and it’s coming soon. Expect no mercy from Tory scum. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so. If you think we’re all in it together you’ve been living on the moon and probably would vote Trump if you lived in America.   People Like That Are the Only People Here. A choice between being rich, or being healthy, few of us get to choose. I choose life, but not stupidity.